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3 Ways to Use Time to Engage Readers in Traumatic Events


As writers we play with characters motives and emotions. We give them seemingly insurmountable tasks, drop them into depression and lift them to conquer their problems. Take a minute to consider how we use time and setting to lead readers into and out of traumatic events.

Three techniques are useful: begin in the every day world, share the traumatic event through slow motion and return the reader to the every day world.

Part one: Begin with the every day world. As we approach a traumatic event, share a soothing, relevant non-event that occurs five minutes or a day before the trauma. Why? If we show the character's day-to-day routine, a time when the character has no idea of what's to come, when the traumatic event occurs we'll rocket the reader into that event. through the change in depth.

Example: A young woman stands in a living room, watching the fire burn down. She's thinking about her day, her new boyfriend and their plans for the snowy weekend together.

Part two: Share the trauma through slow motion. To deepen the reader's engagement, show the traumatic event in slow motion. The freeze-frame idea allows you to pull the reader into the traumatic act, to engage the reader in the physical tension or reactions of the character as the event occurs.

Example: The young woman walks onto the porch to collect an armful of logs for the fire. She slides against the porch railing and breaks through. She falls, feeling every twist and turn of her body as single freeze frames. Thoughts of her family, her boyfriend, how beautiful the night sky looks flash through her mind as she falls onto the hard-packed earth. She's now injured, freezing, and alone as she waits for help to arrive.

Part three: Return to the every day world. After the traumatic event ends, we often return to a state of calm. The trauma has created a dramatic change but our character must return everyday life. That day-to-day routine needs a subtle change as we pull away from the event. The character steps back, sorts through the trauma, answers the "what-if's" and the "if only's" and attempts to resume life that existed before the event.

Example: (The change) In the quiet of her night in the hospital, she relives the trauma remotely as though watching a movie. Her focus shifts to how she'll cope with the damage she'd created to the porch railing, how her injury will affect her ability to work and pay for her expenses, how it all affects her career, as well as how she'll handle the embarrassment of the accident.

These three techniques work well whether it's a fall, a gun battle, a person running from an enemy, or a character learning of an unexpected demotion, injury or death. They are also useful when a character receives positive news: an engagement, an award or a huge surprise. Beginning in a calm place, learning of the life-changing event, breaking it down second by second, then attempting to return to a second calm state reveals a lot about the character and provides a powerful tool to add to your writing bag of tricks.


Paddy Eger is an award winning author of two ballet-themed Young Adult novels: 84 Ribbons and When the Music Stops-Dance On. She also writes Educating America books and materials for training adults to work in classrooms.  


The Query Process and When to Accept No for an Answer

Writing a novel isn’t too much different from having your first child, raising him to be an adult, and then sending him out into the world on his own. It’s just as difficult and often more painful. As a writer, you spend months—even years, sometimes—pouring your thoughts onto the pages of a manuscript with hopes that someone will see your vision within the words. You write late into the night, often between other jobs and parenting responsibilities—really, just anywhere you can find five minutes. Then the day finally comes when you type the last word of your document! Relief!

But hold on friend—you’re not done! Now you edit what you’ve already written, sometimes reading it so many times that you begin to hate your own writing. But the day finally comes when you’re completely satisfied, and now it’s time to take that first leap of faith by sending it out into the world through the process of querying for an agent or publisher.

You’ve already spent a good part of the last year or more writing this novel, now you spend the next several weeks writing and rewriting that query letter. In 250 words, you have to tell the person on the other end a little bit about your book, what makes it so special, who you are and why they want you for an author, and—finally—why they just can’t do without your book. When you’re finally satisfied, you sit back and smile a little, then—very gently—you press the send button. Your “baby” is now out in cyberspace!

And now you wait.

And wait some more.

Finally one day you open your e-mail inbox to see a response from one of the many agents or publishers you’ve contacted. Your heart beats rapidly in your chest and you hold your breath while saying a silent prayer to your favorite deity.

Please let this be a yes! Please let this be a yes!

You cross your fingers and close your eyes, leaving one eye open just enough to see the button on the keyboard that allows you to open the e-mail. You press the button, and then you very slowly open your eyes to read the response.

Thank you for taking the time to query me with your project. I’m sorry but...

I’m sorry but... Three little words, and they send your heart plummeting to your stomach.

It’s easy to feel rejected by a “no” from an agent or publishing house, but you shouldn’t. A “no” doesn’t mean “I didn’t like it” or “You’re a terrible writer.” It simply means that the agent or publishing house lacks the same vision as you have for their ability to sell the book.

Some of the best selling and most popular authors today have received more than their fair share of rejections. The difference between those who find success and the rest of the world is how they handle that rejection.

When you receive a rejection, you have several choices. Sometimes—though it seems infrequent—the agent or editor will give you something to work with; some reason for their rejection that you can take under consideration for revisions. When they don’t and you’re left scratching your head and asking “why,” you can choose to give up, or you can choose to believe in yourself and the original vision that sent you to your keyboard that first time.

Lorna Landvik once told me that she received enough rejection letters to cover New York City, but she refused to quit. She told me that she wouldn’t accept “no” until it was her “no.” She would not quit until she decided it was time to quit; not when the rejection letters implied it was time to quit. Today Landvik is a very successful author and one of my favorite writers.

Mary Kubica, best-selling author of The Good Girl (and the more recent Pretty Baby), was turned down repeatedly by literary agents. Busy with other things, Kubica decided to just put the manuscript aside for a while and move onto other things. Two years later, she was contacted by an agent who’d previously rejected her manuscript. The agent asked if it was still available, as she’d been unable to get the story out of her head in those two years since taking a pass. Sometimes it’s not about not liking the manuscript so much as it is the ability to sell it to a publishing house in the current market. The agent snatched up the manuscript this time, and Kubica went on to be a best-selling author.

The question today is this: What will you do with that next rejection letter? Will you take it for what it’s worth (which is less than the number of keystrokes it took to send it)? Or will you keep your chin up and hold true to the vision that kept you writing late into the night for months on end?

As for me, I think I’ll remember Lorna Landvik’s advice. I won’t accept “no” until it’s my “no.”  

C.H. Armstrong is a 1992 graduate of the University of Oklahoma and holds a B.A. in Journalism with a minor in History. Her first novel, The Edge of Nowhere, is expected to release on January 19 by Penner Publishing, and is a work of historical fiction inspired by her own family’s experiences as survivors of the 1930s Oklahoma Dust Bowl. For more information about this author, visit her website at



Kids Need Hope More Than Fear

Wants versus needs. We humans seem to want everything, but actually need very little. Children need love, safety, security, shelter, clothing, and food. They need to be engaged in character-building activities. They need to be taught how to be decent human beings who accept as an axiom that all life is sacred. They need to be taught that life doesn’t revolve around them, that they are part of a larger world – family, neighborhood, community, city, country, planet – and that they are not entitled to have everything they want. Healthy fear is also a need. It helps protect us from making dangerous choices. However, scaring kids is never a good idea. Irrational “the sky is falling,” “we are doomed,” kind of fear is unhealthy and leads to destructive, rather than constructive, behaviors in kids.

Years ago, many states instituted “Scared Straight” programs as a result of a famous documentary wherein wayward teens were taken to a maximum security prison and threatened by the inmates. They were told horrible things would happen to them should they end up in prison. Several of those teens later ended up incarcerated, one for twenty-five to life in the very same prison where the documentary was filmed. The “scared straight” program didn’t work anywhere it was tried in the country and often proved harmful, likely because it created a self-fulfilling prophesy in the minds of kids who’d already been labeled “bad.” Those kids needed hope, but they were given fear. And it didn’t work.

In some cities, teens are taken to the morgue to view the corpses of drunk driving victims in the hope that they will be scared enough to avoid driving drunk or riding with someone who had been drinking. These programs also proved ineffective, as did all the “Red Asphalt” videos shown to kids in driver’s education classes. Across the board, adults think that scaring kids, and sometimes each other, is the best way to generate positive results. But how can a negative lead to a positive? They are opposites, after all. Kids at all stages of their development need hope much more than they need fear. And so do adults.

Which brings me to the environmental movement, the backdrop of my new novel. Our careless destruction of the environment and its ancillary effects – climate change – are immense areas encompassing all walks of human life. There’s shifting climate patterns, GMOs, poisoned water, fracking, land fills, oil spills, air pollution, CO2 levels – the list goes on and on. Too often, the environmental movement is about doom and gloom – the sky is falling and we need to act now by donating money to this group or that one. Almost every non-profit involved in the environmental arena says to give money to them because they have the inside track and all the answers. Sadly, people are profiting off of environmental destruction, and I don’t mean the obvious beneficiaries – fossil fuel companies, paper mills, coal producers, natural gas extractors and other industries. I mean people supposedly on the “right” side of the issue. They’re making bank, too, and scaring people in the process.

Climate changes fueled by our abuse of the environment could be the defining issue of the millennium, but just this year a new poll indicated that one-third of Americans don’t think there is any climate change at all, and even if it is happening, they don’t believe anything serious will affect them during their lifetime so they don’t care. It’s the usual selfish, shortsighted aspect of human nature that is the root of all human problems – putting “me” over “we.” And in the case of environmental abuse, adults are putting themselves and their personal comfort zones over the needs of their children and grandchildren. It’s disheartening to say the least, but real solutions seldom come from the generation that created the problem. Real solutions come from the generation inheriting the problem. In our time, it’s the millennial generation stepping up to defend and restore the planet. Worldwide, kids are standing up for the environment and their generation. But we need to engage and encourage more young people to take an interest in the big picture. We can only do this by giving them hope, not fear.

Kids need to know the sky isn’t falling. They need to know they can help ensure a better future for themselves and their own children yet to be born. This is the message of my novel. The book presents facts about environmental abuse and pollution, presents tangible solutions to some of the issues, and empowers kids to take real action in their homes, schools, communities, and on a national level by mobilizing via social media.

My goal as a lifelong youth leader, mentor, teacher, coach, volunteer has always been to empower kids, to give them hope for a better future, one they can help bring about by their own choices and actions. Scaring kids with environmental tales of doom and gloom over climate change will just paralyze them and lead many to seek out destructive, self-absorbed hedonism because they figure, why not? The world is crumbling and there’s nothing I can do about it, so I might as well have self-serving fun, right? Wrong. There’s plenty kids and adults can do. The most significant action adults can take is to lead by example, to show kids what real power they have, and give them hope, ideas, and motivation to step up and be leaders in their own right.

Kids rule social media. If they wanted, they could crash the congressional servers with demands for action. They can work within their schools to make them more environmentally friendly. They can do the same in their communities. They can petition their mayors and city council people to take real action on issues that affect them now and will impact them in the future.

 Youth have an innate capacity for hope. I’ve worked with so many kids over the years whose childhoods have been hell on earth. You wouldn’t wish their lives on the most evil of humans. And yet they still have hope that the future can be better, that they can still have happy, productive lives. They continually remind me that life is sacred and all life is a gift. Hope needs to be nurtured in children and teens, not scared out of them because adults have an agenda they want to push or profit from. Even when the motives of adults are pure, if the methodology is wrong, the adult is wrong. Period.

It comes back to wants versus needs. Too many people want to be celebrities and be famous. Some are using the environmental crisis as a springboard to fame and self-aggrandizement. Conversely, many in the environmental arena are genuinely concerned and seek not to profit from the problem, nor become famous as a result of it. But people need to closely examine each organization they consider supporting, especially where their kids are concerned. Parents should make sure that their kids are not following “It’s all about me” environmentalists or they will lose even more hope because they’ll see selfishness and greed that isn’t any different from that exhibited by big industry and big government. Hypocrisy in arenas that impact the lives of children is beyond disturbing, but sadly it exists across the board. Between the self-absorbed environmentalists and the fear-mongering ones, kids can feel overwhelmed and paralyzed and hopeless.

 Parents and honorable adults must lead by example and direct kids toward real solutions to all of life’s problems. In my fictional story, the adults do this – they lead by example, they model “we” over “me” thinking, and they refuse to allow the “cause” to be all about them. As a result, the millions of children and teens who follow them do the same. It’s not difficult to choose “we” over “me,” but it might take daily practice to shift one’s consciousness in that direction.

Try this experiment for yourself and your family: commit to one day per week – the same day every week – during which you will consciously choose “we” over “me” from the moment you wake up until you go to sleep that night. In other words, throughout that day look for every opportunity to serve the needs of others in some fashion. This could translate into being more focused on recycling, not using Styrofoam cups, not throwing away food or useful items – all of these and every other environmentally friendly action clearly helps other people by helping the planet. Or you could commit to helping individual people in some way - people in the community, school, or the workplace. There is always someone who has less than we do and always someone who needs assistance of some kind. For you kids, it could be reaching out to that student who is super shy, or even super annoying, and extending a hand of friendship. The possibilities are endless. If everyone on the planet adopted this idea – to not self-obsess one day per week – can you envision how much better the world would become overnight? It would be transformative. Please try this out for yourself. Commit to this experiment for one month. My guess is that you will find such innate joy and hope in choosing “we” over “me” that you will continue well beyond that month. And I predict you will add more days of “we” over “me” to your weekly schedule.

Hope. It comes in many forms and from many sources. It is the cornerstone of a positive, productive life. It is an essential ingredient for all of us, especially kids. Adults must model it. Adults must share it. Adults must embrace it. I have always done my best to share hope with even the most damaged kids I know. And they continue to share their hope with me. It’s that “we” over “me” mentality. When we look out for the needs of each other, everybody wins.

--Michael J. Bowler

Michael J. Bowler is an award-winning author of nine novels, the latest of which is Warrior Kids. The eBook of Warrior Kids is free to teachers.

Michael taught high school for twenty-five years, both in general education and special education.

He has also been a volunteer Big Brother to eight different boys with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and a thirty-one year volunteer within the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles.

He has been honored as Probation Volunteer of the Year, YMCA Volunteer of the Year, California Big Brother of the Year, and 2000 National Big Brother of the Year. The “National” honor allowed him and three of his Little Brothers to visit the White House and meet President Clinton in the Oval Office.

His goal as an author is for teens to experience empowerment and hope; to see themselves in his diverse characters; to read about kids who face real-life challenges; and to see how kids like them can remain decent people in an indecent world.





So you want to be Italian?

I thought I was Italian, from my Mama’s side, so the comment from my cousin Giovanni in Italy made me laugh. Then I realized he was right; I was born American, and had no papers linking me to Italy. Moro D’Oro and Montepagano were places on a map, distant locations we heard about as children accompanied by a longing in our Grandmother’s eyes.

Grandpa did not become an American citizen until years after Mama was born, which qualifies my sister Nonie and me to apply for dual citizenship with Italy. We are in the midst of that process now. Nevertheless, why we want to complete the circle that began almost 100 years ago is a valid question.

We identify as Italian, we grew up in its culture, and the bond shared with those who know not to put hamburger in their spaghetti sauce brings us together. Society today seems to focus on the us vs. them posture that is divisive, and we, who were once the children of immigrants, cling together as though still on a boat heading toward Ellis Island. My grandparent’s names are listed in the Ellis Island registry. Our cousin Mike (in New Jersey, as there are two cousins Michael), is the keeper of the facts, lineage, pictures … he connects us to what we now embrace as a more literal part of who we are, and how we have come to define ourselves.

Mike sent pictures from his trip to Italy last May. “The "Patacoli house" is the ancestral home of the di Bonaventuras in Morro D'Oro (mother of Elisa [our grandmother]). We were given the tour by Giuseppi (my sixth cousin ---- connecting back to the same grandparent in 1666) and his son Giovanni. The nameplate says "AD Febbraio 1770 Qui Fecit V. Patacoli.” The Patacoli is a nickname for di Bonaventura family in Montepagano and is "our" branch of this prolific family in the region.” I want to go there, to touch the stones, to walk where my family walked. Yes, not distant relatives, they were and are family, and to an Italian, family is everything (La famiglia è tutto).  

We were told as children, by our grandfather in a thick Italian accent, “No speak Italian. You proud American. You speak English.” We learned to speak and understand a few words of Italian, and wish now that we knew more. The words that sneaked through from Gram were usually associated with food and accompanied by a hearty laugh. “Yeat, yeat, mangiare.” I learned to say, “Come si dice” (how do you say?) and plopped the English word on the end hoping to learn a word or two of Italian. Much later, I learned that English was Mama’s second language, learned in grade school, and that she and her sister taught my grandparents English.

I grew up knowing only my maternal side of the family. My parents divorced when I was four, making the connection of family even more important. I used to say that every time I cut myself that I bled out anything that was not Italian. Now, approaching my sixth decade, I am learning to appreciate and embrace the Celtic side, which, with a name like Jones, I can hardly deny.

Like Mama, big sister Nonie has always been the one to teach me the important things in life, lessons that went beyond cooking, baking, gardening, and crocheting. The lessons were pictures of our connections with the earth, and traditions. We walk the farm each day to see how the plants and flowers have grown, encouraging them, telling them they are beautiful and apologizing to them if they do not live, mourning their loss. Gram told us you never say thank you for a gifted plant, as that was bad luck. My garden is full of things like Marty’s Hostas, Missy’s tulips, Jerry’s Irises, which the bunnies ate. Gram always said, “The bunnies gotta eat, too,” unless they really went to town, then Nonie says Gram let the expletives fly. I remember hearing Gram say, “Sun on the beach,” learning later that was her effort at English swearing.

We make handmade gifts, like the picture book Nonie made for me with photos of our family, including partially blank pages that encourage me to add my own memories. We cook from the heart, as our Mama did, because food was a way to gather, to celebrate, to comfort. We do not babysit our grandchildren, we share in their raising, knowing we get far more from those hours than we could ever give. With Mama gone, Nonie and I call each other during the times when we would have called her, now leaning on each other to provide the unconditional love and support that once came from our dear Mama.

We teach our children to have strong work ethics, that one’s word has value (Grandpa’s business contracts were handshakes). If they need help, we remember our parents helping us, saying, “What I do for you, you do for your children.” We respond to their needs, not their wants, and are clear about the difference. We teach them humility, to roll up their sleeves and find satisfaction in the results of hard labor. We teach them to respect their elders, and I have seen the tenderness and love my children show to seniors, even strangers, knowing those are somebody’s parents and grandparents.

We teach our children that they are connected to everyone and everything, that you do not have to be the same race, gender, religion, or species. We respect and love, realizing that others may not feel that way, but that is ok, too. My children are independent, critical thinkers, kind, loving, nurturing, and generous people who, like my mother, would give you their last meal or dollar. I am proud of them, and I am proud that they reflect the values Mama taught me, as her parents taught her.

When Mama died, I felt as though I had lost my identity, culture, and foundation. An orphan at 56, I had nothing to stabilize me, to connect to or pass along to my children and grandsons. I broke into tears in my doctor’s office, and he gently put his arm around my shoulder and said, “You are not alone. You have an entire Italian community out there.” He was right, and he became a cousin that day, one I know I can rely on for more than medical care. He is famiglia.

Yes, I want to be Italian!

*Note: I publish under Sherry Jones Mayo, author of Confessions of a Trauma Junkie: My Life as a Paramedic, which will come out in a second edition later this year or early 2016, and More Confessions of a Trauma Junkie.   

Sherry Jones, EdD(c), MS, RN, FAAETS, EMTP (Ret.)

CEO Education Resource Strategies, Inc.

Board of Directors, Region 2N, Michigan Crisis Response Association

Approved Instructor, International Critical Incident Stress Foundation